In thinking about how countries engage foreign publics I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural. I do this to signal that American public diplomacy is not the only way that countries conceptualize and carry out this work and that very often countries have engage multiple foreign publics for different purposes using different networks.
However in doing comparative historical work it has also become clear that discussion of public diplomacies often get stuck at the level of ideas and definitions. This really isn’t enough to properly make sense of public diplomacies you need to understand what gets done and with what effect and that concepts don’t get you very far.
This means that I would argue for separating out four analytical dimensions:
- ideas and concepts
- activities and programmes
- organization and organizational fields,
Let’s briefly look at this in turn.
Concepts: There are lots of different aspects to this but I’m particularly interested in how do countries answer the why question? Why are we running these activities? This can be broken down into two sub issues: a big question which often touches on questions of identity (to make our country known to the world, to spread the revolution) and a more precise question about how public diplomacies fit into statecraft more generally. While some countries have quite clearly defined answers to these questions other don’t. For instance in looking at the UK you can (literally) go through nearly 30 years from the late 1960s with minimal discussion of what the whole overseas information activity was for. On the other hand if you look at contemporary Germany there are all kinds of policy documents as well as strong tradition of public discussion.
Activities: What do countries do? Can you track activities over time, where they happen, where the resources go? If you can do this there’s a good chance that discrepancies between concepts and practice will emerge. Germany is a good example again because much of the conceptual activity is around areas like peace building but the money goes into schools. Also discussion at the level of ideas tends to mask the geopolitics behind lots of this activity.
Organizations: A lot of discussion tends to focus on organizations because they are visible (and they produce archives) but you can have activities without having a distinct organization and changes in organization may not change the activity very much. Mapping the organizational universe that an organization that you are interested in inhabits is important because it helps you to recognize cross national differences. This is directly relevant to the issue of whether to the US needs a new USIA
Networks: This dimension asks about how activities are supposed to have an effect. Who do they act with or on. How do activities, organizations and concepts align? The networks you have aren’t necessarily the ones that you need but changing them is slow and painful.
I’ve found it useful to separate out these dimensions because they are often quite weakly connected. Changes in concepts or organizations may have quite limited effects on programmes and networks. This is important because often research starts from theory or from top level policy documents.
Yesterday I came across a piece with the headline: Digital diplomacy is the new radio
This is the first paragraph
Digital Diplomacy is the new radio. Ever since politicians figured out that they could speak directly to ‘the masses’, we have had the phenomenon of public diplomacy. It became possible, via radio, to speak directly to people without having to go through official government channels. In the early 20th century, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks effectively used the radio to stoke revolutions in neighbouring countries. A hundred years later, with the advent of social media, public diplomacy has taken a new leap, to 140-character policy frameworks, thanks to Twitter.
There’s nothing new about arguing that social media is really a form of broadcasting but what struck a chord was the reference to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. What you found in totalitarian 1940s and 1950s broadcasting was a personalized, contentious and condescending tone that explained why the other lot were rubbish. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the Russian Embassy London Twitter account – it doesn’t seem to do much to improve the image of Russia or improve relations with the UK but I suddenly recognized the tone.
In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues; how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War? This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse. I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term. So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.
The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance. Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed. This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything. This doesn’t immediately change after 1918 many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany) it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.
Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance? It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war. Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda. The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here. First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process. This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization. Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population. As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions. In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks. Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent. There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive. In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.
The Issue of Effect: Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened. On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome). On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two. Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome). The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs. Effects have multiple dimension. Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort. Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war. Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.
Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.
- Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control. The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents, these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
- This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy). Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
- What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations? During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule. However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations. In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
- This leads to a question about changing media environments. The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization. How does social media effect this communication/organization balance? Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.
That’s question for another day.